Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Without Miracles

Have you ever heard the phrase “The Magic of Christmas”?  Probably, if you google that phrase you get almost 29,000,000 hits.  Everything ranging from albums of Christmas music to campaigns to provide toys to underprivileged children, to children’s books, to more inspirational plaques than you can count.  It was Norman Vincent Peale who wrote “Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”

What people are talking about isn’t the hocus pocus, Harry Potter type of magic, instead it is the soft fuzzy emotional type of magic that is a feeling.

This morning we aren’t talking about magic, but we are talking about miracles. And there are some folks who would like to take the miracles out of Christmas, they would do away with the miraculous and instead hand us an event that could happen without the hand of God being evident throughout it.  And if that is the case then Christmas is just an event, hardly worth remembering let alone celebrating 2000 years later. 

So this morning I’m not trying to convince you of the realities of miracles, after all it was Nancy Gibbs is an editor and writer for Time magazine who summed it up when she wrote “For the truly faithful, no miracle is necessary. For those who doubt, no miracle is sufficient.”

Instead, this morning I simply want to tell you what we would lose if we had a Christmas without miracles. 

So, this morning let’s not start at the beginning, but six months before the beginning where we read the story of a couple named Zacharias and Elizabeth.  What we know about this couple is that Elizabeth was related to Mary the Mother of Christ and that Zacharias was a priest and his wife was from a family of priests.   And we know that they were childless, not by choice but by chance, a tragedy for most folks who it happened to but for a priest it was a double tragedy in that there would be no son to carry on his priestly responsibilities. 
And we know that they were older, again how old?  We don’t know, old enough to be mentioned, but perhaps because it was in relation to their child bearing years maybe it was just relative, maybe they were old in their late forties or early fifties.  Not sure.
The story happens on a day while Zacharias was performing his priestly functions.  By this time in history there were more priests than there were jobs for priests, so they took turns working in the temple, good work if you can find it.  And Zechariah’s turn came up and he was chosen to enter into the temple and offer the sacrifices and while he was in there the strangest thing happened. 

He’s doing the things he supposed to be doing, preparing the sacrifice, getting it ready to be offered, preparing his prayers and the scriptures he would read as part of the ceremony and God interrupts him, with an angel. 

And Zechariah was a little spooked; actually he was a lot spooked.  After all he was supposed to be alone in the altar area, there were no windows just lit by flickering torches, maybe he’s whistling as he worked.  And all of a sudden he’s no longer alone.  I don’t think he was spooked because there was an angel there, I think he was spooked because there was anyone there.
And if we read through the conversation the Angel, who identifies himself as Gabriel, I know don’t get me started, tells Zechariah that his and his wife’s prayers are going to be answered that they will be parents and that their son will do great things for God. 

And after the angel drops this bombshell, I mean good news, on Zechariah he gets this response; “What?”  Actually that was a rough translation his actually words were Luke 1:18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I be sure this will happen? I’m an old man now, and my wife is also well along in years.”
My wife is well along in years, that charitable, love how it is put in the King James Version  Luke 1:18 And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.   Guys just a hint, not sure that “well stricken in years” is the most appropriate way to describe your wife’s age.
You got to love this, for years Zechariah and Elizabeth had prayed for a son, They had been praying so long it had become rote and I don’t think they really expected it would be answered and had never stopped to consider what would happen if it was answered, there would be diapers to buy, a house to be baby proofed and they’d have to get a baby seat for the camel.
Presumably they knew what caused babies and presumably they had been trying that particular technique without success so the assumption would have to be that there would have to be something miraculous about this.
And to be fair, it may not have been disbelief as much as curiosity that caused his reaction, he knew the other way wasn’t working so what was going to change?
If you don’t know the rest of the story it would appear that Gabriel was a little sensitive about not being believed because he responds by saying in Luke 1:19-20 Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.”
Boy, do you know where I’d be if folks who don’t always believe the promises of God lost their voice?  Yeah, preaching to a very quiet church.
And you know the rest of the story, Elizabeth conceives and they have a son they named John who we know as John the Baptist.  It was John who preached repentance first and it was John who announced the ministry of Jesus.
And his birth was a miraculous birth, so if there were no miracles in the story of Jesus There Would Be No John to Announce Him But John’s wasn’t the only miraculous conception in the Christmas Story.  The main event revolves around a miraculous conception.  You know the story.  Mary a young woman in a small town is engaged to be married and before that happens an angel appears and tells her that she is going to have a baby.  Her first response was probably “That’s cool, I’ve always wanted to be a mother.”  And then he drops the bombshell and tells her the time line, and her response is found in Luke 1:34-35 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.

We call it the “Virgin Birth” and it has become such an ingrained part of the Christmas story that it’s the only time little children can use the word “Virgin” and not raise eyebrows.  We sing about it, put in on Christmas Cards, read it in the Christmas story do we actually believe it? 

Do you know there are churches and preachers who don’t believe in the virgin birth?  Seriously.  I’m not sure what they believe, we do know that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married and if that was the extent of the story then we’d have to assume that perhaps they were engaged in a little more than wedding preparation. They wouldn’t be the first couple or the last who’s first born was a little premature.  Or as my Daddy used to tell me “The first one can come at any time the next one takes nine months.”

But that wasn’t all of the story, when Mary breaks the news to Joseph he was upset, because he knew that he wasn’t the father.  So where does that leave us?  Either Mary was a virgin, as she claimed, and who should know better, or God’s son was conceived as the result of a betrayal.  You see two thousand years ago in Jewish culture the one year period before the marriage vows were actually taken was called the betrothal and it was considered as binding as a marriage.  Which is why when Joseph heard the news the bible tells us in Matthew 1:19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.  The NIV is closer to the meaning of the original when it says Matthew 1:19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
So if we were to take the miracles out of Christmas There Would be No Extraordinary Birth And you might be thinking: so what?  Well the prophecies concerning the coming messiah stated that he would be born of a virgin.  But more than that we are talking God coming to earth.  How should he come?  The same way that you and me and Genghis Khan and Adolph Hitler were conceived and born?
The prophet said that God would chose a sign, and he did, he stepped outside the boundary of natural laws that say that in the act of conception a male and a female would each contribute a cell which would become a new person.  Instead God did what had never happened before and has not happened since and that is he produced a child with only one cell.  You read in the papers about same sex parents, don’t believe it can’t happen.  It takes ingredients from a boy and a girl to make a baby.
But the miracles didn’t end at conception.

The next part of the story involves the world’s second oldest profession, It wasn’t the world’s oldest profession but it was close!  I mean you know what the world’s oldest profession is right?  That’s right, farming.  Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain the oldest was a farmer, thus making that the world’s oldest profession.  What were you thinking? 

And Abel the younger brother was a shepherd making that the world’s second oldest profession. 

We all know the story, the shepherds are in the field watching their sheep when suddenly an angel appears with a message. “The Messiah is here!” and then that angel is joined by a whole flock of angels who are proclaiming the goodness of God.

In its most literal sense the word “angel” as used in the original language simply meant messenger now that doesn’t negate who appeared to the Shepherds that first Christmas.  These weren’t just messengers, these were Heavenly messengers. Luke tells us in Luke 2:13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God. . .   

Now most of us don’t get Angels in the traditional sense to tell us about Jesus, and if you did, cool.  But the majority of us do get a messenger with news about Jesus. 

We see a great example of this in John 1:40-41 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of these men who heard what John said and then followed Jesus. Andrew went to find his brother, Simon, and told him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”).   Andrew heard about Jesus from John and then Simon heard about Jesus from Andrew.
Who was it that told you about Jesus for the first time?  Who was your angel?  My angel’s name was Reg, which is kind of a strange name for an angel when you think about it, but it is what it is.

For most of us, we don’t just stumble into Christianity.  I mean it does happen sometimes, and when it does it makes a great story.  For example, Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player for the Chicago White Stockings and one Sunday afternoon in 1886 he and some of his fellow players had a few beers and were wandering through the streets of Chicago where Sunday heard a street preaching team from the Pacific Garden Mission. 

And the rest as they say is history.  Billy Sunday became a Christ follower and went on to become the Billy Graham of his time, or more correctly Billy Graham became the Billy Sunday of his time.  Over the course of his ministry Sunday preached to a 100 million people and recorded over a million converts, and that was without television or the interwebby thing.

But most of us have someone, friend, family or a co-worker who brings the message to us and invites us to come. Paul spells it out for us in Romans 10:14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?
And so it was on a lonely hillside outside of Bethlehem that the Angels came and told the shepherds about Jesus.  It takes a miracle to provide angels in a field mesmerizing a group of shepherds You understand that without angels, the shepherds would never have heard the story of the Messiah.  Without Miracles There Would be no Shepherds to Welcome Him

And the story continues. Actually this miracle goes back probably even further than the story of Elizabeth and Zachariah.  And it began in a country that was called Persia then but now we call it Iran. 

What symbolizes Christmas more than the picture of the Magi kneeling in adoration before the new born messiah.  Across the desert sand they had come, mile after mile and they weren’t a part of a flash mob, they didn’t hear about Jesus via Facebook or Twitter they were following the promise of a distant star. 

And the Magi of the East made their pilgrimage across the sea of sand to the little town of Bethlehem to worship at the cradle of Christ.   

We call them the Three Kings, but we were never told they were kings or that there were three of them.  In the original language they are referred to as Magi, and tradition tells us that they probably came from Persia.

And in the scriptures we are told that they brought 3 gifts, which is probably why we always think there were three of them. 

You’ve probably all heard what would have happened if it had of been three wise women instead right?
They Would Have Asked Directions
They Would Have Arrived On Time
They Would Have Helped Deliver the Baby
They Would Have Cleaned the Stable
They Would Have Made a Casserole
They Would Have Brought Practical Gifts.
The story is told in Matthew 2:9-11 . . .And the star they (the Wise Men) had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And we still create tradition, if you go to many churches this time of year you will hear that the Magi never saw the new born Christ, instead we are told that they arrived two years after Jesus was born.  The rational?  They refer to where the Bible says that they went to the house where the baby was so maybe a room opened in the inn the day after Jesus was born, the scripture tell us that Jesus was born in a stable, they don’t tell us how long he stayed in the stable.  Imagine what happened when the innkeeper’s wife discovered that he had put a pregnant woman in the barn. 

They talk about how it would have taken the magi two years to make the trip, but if God could put a star in the sky to guide the wise men he could have put it there so they arrived on time, that’s why we call them miracles. 

And finally the proponents of this new tradition point to the fact that Herod ordered the death of all male children under the age of 2.  So what? The man was a kook.  When he was on his death bed he ordered that some of the most distinguished people in Jerusalem be arrested and killed at the moment of his death so some tears would be shed.   I want to know why Mary and Joseph and Jesus would have hung around Bethlehem for two years after the census was finished, inquiring minds want to know.  Didn’t Joseph have a carpenter shop to get back to?

Regardless of when the Magi arrived it was a miraculous journey and if we take the Miracles out of Christmas Then There Would be no Magi to Worship Him 

The first Christmas was a Miraculous Christmas, and that’s the way it should have been.

The greatest event in human history has to be when God came to dwell amongst us. And how should that have happened?  Should it have been an everyday event that no one noticed? Or should there have been some element of wonder attached to it? 

I know that there are people who deny the events of the first Christmas because they can’t believe that things like that could happen and perhaps that’s why the Bible says 1 Corinthians 1:18 I know very well how foolish the message of the cross sounds to those who are on the road to destruction. But we who are being saved recognize this message as the very power of God.  Perhaps we could change that just a bit to read 1 Corinthians 1:18 I know very well how foolish the message of Christmas sounds to those who are on the road to destruction. But we who are being saved recognize this message as the very power of God.

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